Crowdfunding goal met for Bellingham coal train air-pollution study

A coal train waits south of Blaine, Friday morning, Oct. 11, 2013, to cross the border and unload in Canada.
A coal train waits south of Blaine, Friday morning, Oct. 11, 2013, to cross the border and unload in Canada. THE BELLINGHAM HERALD

A scientist who launched an online fundraising campaign for a coal-train pollution study met his monetary goal on Friday, Dec. 5, and will begin collecting data along the railroad tracks in Bellingham as soon as possible.

According to Dan Jaffe’s Web page on experiment.com, he had received $13,172 in contributions as of Friday. Jaffe, a professor of atmospheric and environmental chemistry at the University of Washington-Bothell, had set his goal at $12,000 to cover student and staff salaries, equipment and travel.

“Yes, the study has been successfully crowdfunded,” Jaffe confirmed to The Bellingham Herald via email. “We are making plans now. The observations will start ASAP and continue perhaps as late as March. The end date depends on when we feel we have sufficient data to answer our scientific questions.”

Jaffe is part of a group of scientists studying air and noise pollution, and road-traffic congestion, from coal trains to further understand the impacts of the proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal at Cherry Point. The group will submit its results to Whatcom County and the state Department of Ecology, which are drafting an environmental impact statement on the proposed coal terminal.

If approved, the terminal would begin shipping up to 48 million tons a year of Wyoming and Montana coal to Asian ports as early as 2019. If all the additional trains brought by the terminal — nine loaded coal trains and nine empties — went through Bellingham, they would more than double the current train traffic.

The fundraising was successful because a single anonymous Whatcom County donor gave at least $6,300 to the project to ensure it could proceed, said Shannon Wright, executive director of Communitywise Bellingham. The watchdog organization works to gather and present information on the impacts of the proposed terminal. The donation was confirmed on Friday morning, Wright said.

All told, 54 donors contributed $244 on average on experiment.com.

The Whatcom air-quality study is intended to supplement information from Jaffe’s report on coal-train pollution over 28 days in the summer of 2013 in Seattle. The study found spikes in harmful fine-particle pollution from diesel exhaust, and what appeared to be coal dust, after trains went by the air monitor. A 50 percent increase in train traffic in Seattle would put some locations along the tracks at risk of exceeding national air-quality standards, according to the report, published in the April 2014 issue of Atmospheric Pollution Research.

Meanwhile, county and state officials are getting the environmental impact statement into gear. The government study will include its own analysis of impacts to road traffic, and also could include air and noise pollution studies, said Tyler Schroeder, the county executive’s special projects manager.

The county and state have been in discussions with the project applicants — terminal builder SSA Marine and BNSF Railway — to determine whether an air-pollution study is needed, Schroeder said. The government agencies and the applicants have been going back and forth over whether already-existing science on air quality can be applied to the proposed terminal.

“The agencies continue to indicate that we need a site-specific monitored air quality and particulate matter study,” Schroeder said.

SSA Marine spokesman Craig Cole had no comment on the discussions with the state and county. He did offer a statement about Jaffe’s work, which has been criticized because it is funded by anti-coal interests.

“Whatever the issue, it is the (environmental impact statement) process that is looked to for independent, unbiased and thorough research,” Cole said.

In the next couple months, the government agencies and the applicants should resolve the question of the air-quality study, Schroeder said, and by then the county will have a better idea of when the draft environmental impact statement will be completed.

“At that time, we will be able to reassess the timeline and provide the public a specific date we’re going to shoot for” to complete the draft, he said.

The approval process for Gateway Pacific Terminal has been perhaps more closely watched than any other proposed project in the county. Some 125,000 public comments were received on what the impact statement should include.